On Being Ethnically Ambiguous

Will a piece of paper stating I’m a certain percent Indian and perhaps a certain percent something else, change how people will relate to me?

With the arsenal of tools before me, I begin my morning transformation. I paint my face with a milk chocolate colored foundation before dabbing my cheeks with a brownish blush so dark it could be mistaken for a bronzer. I rim my mahogany eyes with kohl liner and then work a coconut infused cream through my black ringlets. I’m ready for the day.

“Are you from around here?” a stranger asks.

“Yes,” I reply knowing what questions will follow.

“Have you lived here for awhile?”


“Where are your parents from?” the stranger pursues.

“New York.”

At this point, people take a hint from my curt answers and often give up, though a few persistent ones push on.

“What’s your background, like your ethnic origin?” I laugh inside at the way the stranger adds clarity to the question as if I don’t know exactly what he is getting at.

Depending on my patience that day and the tone of the questions, I will dig into my stash of worn out replies and share that my mom’s Caucasian and my dad’s Indian. Other times, I’ll mention that I’m not sure since I’m adopted. Both answers usually stop strangers in their tracks.

On occasion, for my own entertainment and curiosity, I subject them to the uncomfortable question, “What do you think I am?” and watch them shift about. Only when I straighten my mound of curls or harness it back into a tight bun, people’s guesses skew towards Indian once they look past my rich chocolate skin, which hardly resembles the fair Bollywood stereotype. Most of the time, people from all ethnic backgrounds guess I’m African, Sri Lankan, Caribbean or something else they can’t quite put their finger on. I’ve been addressed in Amharic, the language of Ethiopia, far more often than Hindi, the language of my birth mother, the only biological parent whose ethnicity I know.

It’s jolting when an Indian person talks to me about India without realizing we share a birth country. I mean, can’t they recognize one of their own? I allow the conversation to flow naturally until they ask me if I’ve ever been there. When I disclose my origins, their faces light up until I squash their excitement by mentioning my adoption. Part of me dislikes admitting my Indian beginnings because I feel like an imposter. Despite being born there, I don’t speak the language, I don’t know how to cook the food, I don’t have a clue about the various gods or celebrations. Educating myself through books and movies can never replace a cultural upbringing. The disconnect between my appearance and familiarity with Indian culture infuse many aspects of my life and I’m often reminded and saddened by it.

You’d think with all the recent advances in technology, I’d just send a tube of my saliva for genetic and ancestral analysis and be done with all the questions. I have considered it, especially when my pen hovers over ethnicity check boxes. Often, I select Asian as this one box represents 60 % of the world’s population and I know I’m at least half Asian. There’s never an option for unknown. My only other choice is “other,” and I do find solace in that selection. I once asked someone collecting this information, “What are mixed race people supposed to do?” Surprisingly, he said no one has ever asked that. I didn’t follow up probing about people who don’t know their full ethnicity. But will a piece of paper stating I’m a certain percent Indian and perhaps a certain percent something else change how people will relate to me?

I doubt it.

Despite the emotional challenges, there is a benefit to being enigmatic. I can shape shift depending on my surroundings. I’ve been invited on numerous occasions to a smattering of cultural events. Because of my mysterious element and the way people treat me, I often can relate to other races even without being part of them like each morning when the Eritrean security guard working at my local coffee shop comes over for a chat about kids or life while I sip my coffee. And while I can’t say for certain, I believe I’ve filled incorrect demographic quotas for positions through my career.

But as much as I am the beneficiary of people across races relating to me, I’m equally the target of multi-racial discrimination. I always find it odd to experience prejudice against me for something I’m not. While waitressing overseas in a predominantly white country, I overheard a regular customer say to the host, “Please make sure the black waitress comes to my table.” I weave through the bustling restaurant wondering why I haven’t seen the new black waitress considering the small staff. Just as I’m about to enter the kitchen to collect a round of entrees, which rarely cost less than $50 a plate, the host pulls me aside.

“MK, I’m so sorry but Mrs. Henderson wants you to serve her table.”

My mouth drops as I realize, this regular patron is calling me the black waitress. She didn’t even bother learning my name. With an American accent and dark skin, this was enough evidence for her to label me as an African American.

Another time, dressed in a suit with my hair tied back for an interview in liberal San Francisco, a senior staff member joked about knowing where terrorists come from and then mentioned that they do background checks. Half the time when these things happen, I don’t even know what to be offended by.

But again, no conclusive data will change anything about my interactions with the world and the world’s interaction with me. So the only thing that piece of paper will give me is the ability to confidently check the correct ethnicity box. Or perhaps two.

Standing in front of my bathroom sink at the end of the day, I splash my face with water and watch the dissolved make-up swirl down the drain. I compare the narrowness of my dark-complexioned face with those of the Ethiopians, who’ve addressed me in their language, and I understand their mistake. The light bounces off my hair allowing me to glimpse reddish brown hues in my otherwise black hair. Where or who did I inherit that from? Without the layer of make-up, I notice my skin’s undertones and realize despite my mask of make-up, I can’t control the way people see me. And while that will never change, accepting that my ambiguous history will make me forever enigmatic, will perhaps give me the solace I need.

MK Menon is a transracial international adoptee, who went back to her birth country to search for her biological family. She hopes to release her memoir in the next year about this journey. She is also a staff storyteller for adoption.com, research scientist, wife and mother to a spirited toddler.

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